From a distance, there’s not a lot of things that this film does that would set it up to be a terrific movie about war.
As the title hints, Beasts of No Nation is a film taking place in an unnamed country, presumed to be in Africa. In the same way, many of the main characters go unnamed and the conflicts and the different groups that are fighting are close to impossible to follow. However, it’s through this purposeful lack in clarity that Cary Fukunaga creates a brutally honest depiction of a soldier that American cinema has been lacking for years. Beasts of No Nation is an atmospheric journey into human darkness that allows the audience to explore the mind of its protagonist without spelling anything out for you or rewarding you with easy answers to challenging questions.
At the beginning of Beasts of No Nation, Agu (Abraham Attah) is a young boy living in a small village in Africa. His simple life is torn apart when an army invades his town and kills his father and older brother. Not long after he escapes, he’s captured by a different rebel group led by an enigmatic figure simply called The Corporal (Idris Elba). The Corporal sees potential in Agu and recruits him to become a soldier for his army. In joining up, Agu enters into a nightmarish journey that will make him question his morality, beliefs and sanity.
At this point, making a war movie that’s original feels difficult. That’s not to say there aren’t any recent ones that have been solid but it’s becoming a genre that’s very easy to predict. Going into a war movie, you know what it will most likely be about. One side will be the hero and one side will be the villain. You know what each side is fighting for and you know how the story will conclude. Even if a movie tries to represent a more grimy depiction of war, many of these things are still expected nonetheless. Though I to some extent enjoyed Fury and American Sniper, those are two movies that are fairly easy to predict with what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it.
In everything decision Fukunaga makes; he goes out of his to make sure that all of the things mentioned above never make an appearance in Beasts of No Nation. No side of the war is shown to be any better than the other. You could never tell the political differences between the sides. Most of the time it’s never explained why they’re fighting or what it is that they’re fighting for. By the end of the movie, you don’t feel that the conflict within the country is anywhere close to being finished. The title gives away that we don’t even know where it is that they’re fighting. The movie takes very general things that you would just expect in this type of movie and it refuses to give the audience these comforts. There are all of these things that are going on and the audience has to pick up on them while being mostly in the dark, this forces the audience to use their brain. There’s a moment where The Commandant does something unthinkable to Agu and instead of showing it or shouting out what just happened, the director expects us to piece together subtle, quiet details in the following scene to create a bigger, more grotesque picture of thing what just took place. The movie is purposefully quiet so that you can pick up on the story by exploring the surroundings of the world it creates with its visuals and performances. This hits down on why this is such an intelligent and ambitious film, we are finally getting a look at war through the eyes of the person fighting it rather than someone looking above it all.
There’s no generic narration or characters that simply exist to explain what is going on. In fact, the only other people you have to go off of besides Agu are his deaf comrade Stryker and the drunk, lost soul that is The Commandant. We feel just as confused and horrified at what is going on as Agu is because we’re right there with him as they go from town to town committing terrifying acts of violence. The bits and pieces that you do pick up on are only shot from the eyes of the main character. Much like Agu, we have no real idea why we’re doing this or what any of this means. The only real solution we have is the same one Agu is given which is to keep going down this rabbit hole of destruction. Cary Fukunaga has finally given us a war movie that cuts through everything and presents War as what it actually is from the perspective of someone within it. To Agu and to us, war becomes endless, meaningless and unsatisfying chaos. They wander from place to place serving the deeds of higher ups that only care about them when they need them to perform their dirty work. A great scene shows how much of a fish out of water they are whenever they are forced to come into contact with something involving legitimate politics. Everything about this movie from the title to the location to the filmmaking was to set up to be the most basic, intimate presentation of war humanly possible and whether you like it or not, this story that we follow and the frustration we get while watching feels like the most accurate representation of what battle actually is.
More than just war through the eyes of a soldier, the movie also does an incredible job capturing war through the eyes of a child. Many have discussed how visually beautiful the movie is despite the atrocious acts taking place within it. The cinematography makes every scene look like its taking place in a dreamlike, other worldly place. Whimsical doesn’t seem like the type of word you would use for a film in which the characters snort a mixture of cocaine and gun powder and yet I can’t think of a more perfect description for how they have made the world look in this movie. To understand why Fukunaga did this, you first have to understand that one of the biggest struggles Agu faces in the movie is in maintaining his innocence. The deep tragedy of the film is that Agu is still a young boy and his outlook on the world is still very vast and naïve. There are many things he is still learning about life and he is only beginning to comprehend many of these things throughout. For the movie to be a realistic portrayal of Agu’s experiences, you still need to show this youthful nature that’s within him even when he’s being asked to grow up very quickly. The way the movie shows Agu’s true spirit is in the breathtaking cinematography that highlights the vast wonder of its surroundings even when it contains disgusting madness. Cary Fukunaga shows this story as it is taking place in the mind of our young protagonist.
Lastly, I would be remiss to not discuss the two outstanding performances of Idris Elba and Abraham Attah. For years, we have been waiting for Elba to finally give a performance as strong as his television work on Luther and we have finally gotten that performance with the fascinating Commander. The Commander is an amazing character because he does so many unforgivable things from murder to molestation and yet you still find yourself sympathizing with him. You can get the sense that he has come to a point in his life where he can’t do anything other than what he’s doing right now. He has followed this road of blood for so long that he can’t return to a normal life and it is presumed by the end that he will continue fighting until he dies. He would rather hold on to his army for as long as possible than help out in finding some conclusion to the war. The Commander says multiple times that he sees himself in Agu so it also makes me wonder if The Commander is set up as a warning to Agu of what he can become if he doesn’t escape. This part gives Elba the chance to do two things he’s terrific at, being really charismatic and being very intimidating.
The ultimate triumph of the movie is the breathtaking breakthrough performance here by Abraham Attah as Agu. For someone who’s never been in a movie before, he gives the performance of a master actor. The character doesn’t have as much dialogue so it relies on the actor to really provide humanity into these quiet parts. Attah sinks into the part and he makes the most out of every scene. It’s in the more quiet moments that don’t rely on dialogue that he shines and you get to see the sorrow and loss and the dismay that’s hiding in this young boys eyes. The final speech he gives at the end of the movie when he talks about whether or not he is a good person is cinema at its most powerful. Abraham Attah sinks into the part so perfectly that you often forget that what you’re watching is a character and not the real experiences of a child soldier in Africa.
Beasts of No Nation is an absorbing, powerful portrait of the mind of a soldier. This movie is filled with such rich filmmaking, writing and acting that I fear I have only skimmed the surface of the film with this review. It’s certainly a challenging movie to watch and at times I wished I was watching it in a theater instead of at home on Netflix. But if you sit down and let yourself become absorbed in the surreal yet grounded battlefield Fukunaga created, you’ll be moved by the surprising places it takes you. If you have a Netflix account, you have no excuse to miss out on this one.
Review by: Ryan M.
Release Date: 10/16/2015
Cast: Abraham Attah, Emmanuel Affadzi, Ricky Adelayitor and Idris Elba
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Screenplay by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Based on the Book by: Uzodinma Iweala